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Jan 22, 08 - 6:15 am

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The U.S. government spends $7.5 billion to classify its information each year — that’s more taxpayer dollars than we annually put into the Department of Commerce.

But over-the-top secrecy policies aren’t just an expensive governmental habit. They give the President, the military and intelligence agencies powers far beyond what our founding fathers intended.

At least that’s the case made in Robb Moss and Peter Galison’s documentary Secrecy.

Though apparently too heady and subtle for the demands of the marketplace, it hasn’t caught on with Sundance buyers yet, however the film shines valuable light on a particularly troubling trend in American governance.

The apparent goal of Secrecy, which consists of talking heads woven together with bits of archival and impressionistic footage, is to unravel the enormous, knotty and veiled system that keeps sensitive information out of view of American citizens.

Some of the experts, among them former NSA head Mike Levin, former Los Alamos National Lab director Sig Hecker and retired CIA officer James Bruce, argue that the classification system protects Americans, allowing, for example, surveillance on potential bad guys to continue.

Others adamantly describe the U.S.’s secrecy policies as undemocratic. What’s deemed sensitive info — info that intentionally keeps the public in the dark — is determined entirely at the whim of public officials.

Who decides what’s dangerous info to share and what’s just embarrassing? How can citizens protest or resist policies they can’t know about?

Particularly convincing subjects include Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman, who helped break the no-WMDs-in-Iraq stories, and Lt. Gen. Charles Swift, who helped overturn the Bush Administration’s Guantanamo policies.

The methods of secrecy are troubling, and so is the amount of classified material. Here’s an excerpt from a Galison essay:

The classified universe, as it is sometimes called, is certainly not smaller and very probably is much larger than this unclassified one. No one has any very good idea how many classified documents there are. No one did before the digital transformation of the late twentieth century, and now—at least after 2001—even the old sampling methods are recognized to be nonsense in an age where documents multiply across secure networks like virtual weeds. … Some suspect as many as a trillion pages are classified (200 Libraries of Congress). That may be too many. In 2001, for example, there were thirty-three million classification actions; assuming (with the experts) that there are roughly 10 pages per action, that would mean roughly 330 million pages were classified last year (about three times as many pages are now being classified as declassified). So the U.S. added a net 250 million classified pages last year. By comparison, the entire system of Harvard libraries—over a hundred of them—added about 220,000 volumes (about 60 million pages, a number not far from the acquisition rate at other comparably massive universal depositories such as the Library of Congress, the British Museum, or the New York Public Library). Contemplate these numbers: about five times as many pages are being added to the classified universe than are being brought to the storehouses of human learning, including all the books and journals on any subject in any language collected in the largest repositories on the planet.

Secrecy begins with Pearl Harbor and the growth of the U.S. intelligence infrastructure, and moves briskly through 9/11, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

The biggest revelation involves a 1953 Supreme Court case. After a crash that killed nine servicemen, the U.S. Air Force argued that the files needed to remained closed because of national security issues.

The Supremes ruled in favor of the Air Force, and in the years since, the case has been cited in more than 600 state-secrets trials.

But wait, here’s the icing on the cake.

When those once-classified files were opened 50 years later, they revealed no state secrets, only overwhelming evidence of military incompetence and malfeasance.

Our national secrecy system, it turns out, may be based on a single dirty lie created to save bumbling officials from embarrassment.

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